Lessons on downturns from the Western Slope for local governments around the country
On the Western Slope in Colorado, the coal industry is dying, oil-and-gas drilling is slowing down and plans to resuscitate uranium mining have tanked. Residents are leaving in droves. Efforts launched by mayors in towns like Montrose and Rifle to stanch the bleeding have experienced mixed results.
“We’re surrounded by nice high country and have great mountains and recreation, but we’re not located on any of the major of transportation highways,” says frustrated Montrose Mayor Bob Nicholson.
“Our story is tough,” said Brad Harding of Delta, a town of 8,900 residents 22 miles northwest of Montrose. Harding is president of Delta County Economic Development and a fifth-generation member of a local coal-mining family. “We’re 50 percent less educated as far as post-secondary degrees, and our median household income is $15,000 less than the state average. Those are tough challenges to overcome.”
Nicholson says he’s looking to move beyond the up-down economic cycle by seizing on opportunities presented today that were unavailable in the past.
“When you live in a community that has really great recreational opportunities and is a great place to be but not on the best physical highway, the next best thing—and actually it may be an even better thing—is to be squarely on the information highway,” he said.
There’s a lot to learn in stories like these and much to act on for the people running small towns across the country.
That kind of action is what Editor Michael Grass and Atlantic Media’s Government Executive are hoping to encourage with an innovative state-and-local journalism project called Route Fifty. The project is in the process of launching a multi-week series called “The Roadmap,” aimed at connecting local government managers at state, county and city levels but, if the first installments are any measure, it’s also just good reading.
The bit above quoting Nicholson and Harding was lifted from “Boom & Bust Cycles, Plus Reinvention, Reverberate on Colorado’s Western Slope.” It’s the second story in the Roadmap series written by Colorado Independent contributor David O. Williams and it’s due out Monday.
In Rifle, on the Western Slope, as Williams reports, planning for the drilling bust that’s now creeping up on the community began during the boom. City planners won a federal grant to diversify the economy by building up the downtown area, boosting retail and wooing light manufacturing that will stay a while, like the businesses they hope to persuade to fill a renewable-energy industry campus.
Grass told the Colorado Independent that his publication is trading on the fact that Washington is gridlocked and basically unhelpful in a lot of ways, and that the real site of action — where solutions can be worked out — is more close to home. Maybe that’s better, anyway, he says because local governments share a lot of the same challenges. He says the point is to connect these locales more directly one to another.
“Our site will be a news platform where state and local government leaders and managers across the nation can exchange ideas, look at common challenges and figure out ways to better serve their constituents,” he said.
[Photo of a Nevada stretch of US Route 50 by Bill Herndon.]
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